How Do You Choose a Good Research Topic?

Everyone’s been there.1 Maybe you’re looking at a class assignment. Or maybe it’s the next conference paper or journal article. Or maybe it’s a larger-scale thesis, dissertation, or book project.

You have a sense of who you want your work to address. But you’re having trouble coming up with exactly what you want to discuss.

There isn’t a magic formula for invention. But a good approach begins with imagination and the hermeneutic priority of questions.

The Hermeneutic Priority of Questions

H.-G. Gadamer reflects,

Imagination … is the decisive function of the scholar. Imagination naturally has a hermeneutical function and serves the sense for what is questionable. It serves the ability to expose real, productive questions….

As a student of Plato, I particularly love scenes in which Socrates gets into a dispute with the Sophist virtuosi and drives them to despair by his questions. Eventually they can endure his questions no longer and claim for themselves the apparently preferable role of the questioner. And what happens? They can think of nothing at all to ask. Nothing at all occurs to them that is worth while going into and trying to answer.

I draw the following inference from this observation. The real power of hermeneutical consciousness is our ability to see what is questionable.2

The ability to “see what is questionable” helps us to “break the spell of our own fore-meanings.”3 That is, it puts us in a state of openness to understand the realities we encounter in differently than we do at first blush.

Two Kinds of Questions

Good research answers a question. And the first step toward answering a question is “seeing what is questionable” so that you can ask the question.

You might not ask the question as such in your project. But the question you’re answering needs to undergird the whole project so that it has coherence as an answer.

The questions you can ask are as infinite as the possible combinations of material involved in biblical studies. For all that breadth, though, the questions basically fall into two types.

Good research projects can try to answer questions that are

  1. known as such or based on known themes.
  2. unknown or unknown as such.4

Questions Known as Such or Based on Known Themes

An example of a known question would be “What is the nature of verbal aspect in Koine Greek?”

Similarly, once someone tried to answer the question “How does Paul use Isaiah in Romans?” the question “How does Paul use Isaiah in 1–2 Corinthians?” became a known permutation of the same theme.

Questions Unknown or Unknown as Such

Basing research on a question that’s unknown or unknown as such requires you to interrogate the basic assumptions undergirding a topic.

For instance, by the late 1970s, the discipline of “Old Testament introduction” was well established, and writers of introductions to the Old Testament followed predictable patterns.

One of those frequent patterns was treating the topic of an Old Testament canon only at the end of the introduction or not at all. Canon wasn’t something that was endemic to the discipline. And that sense was the accepted status quo.

But in his Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, Brevard Childs argued that this assumption wasn’t well founded.5 Canon wasn’t a subsidiary crater in the wider topic of Old Testament introduction. It was part and parcel to the whole.

Questioning the assumption of the irrelevance of canon opened a new line of subsequently known questioning. What might it for Old Testament interpretation if it were approached precisely as canon?

Conclusion

To choose a good research topic, you have to start with a question. That question can be either known or unknown. But it needs to be there to unify your project.

That ability to “see what is questionable” and to ask questions accordingly is the first step in choosing a good research topic.


  1. Header image provided by Oliver Roos

  2. Hans-Georg Gadamer, “The Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem,” in Philosophical Hermeneutics, ed. and trans. David E. Ligne, 1st paperback ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), 12–13; italics added. 

  3. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, ed. and trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, 2nd ed., Bloomsbury Revelations (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 281. 

  4. In distinguishing types of questions in this way, I’m indebted to the descriptions of “normal” and “extraordinary” science in Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 4th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012). 

  5. Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 1st American ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979). 

Daily Gleanings: Scripture (30 October 2019)

Joseph Gordon discusses his Divine Scripture in Human Understanding (University of Notre Dame Press, 2019) in an interview with Matthew Bates.

One of Joe’s constant encouragements in the discussion is to consider what it might properly mean to say x, y, or z about Scripture or the realities to which it speaks.

For the full interview, see OnScript.

Daily Gleanings: New Publications (24 July 2019)

In the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 62.2 (353–69), Greg Goswell contemplates “Reading Romans after the Book of Acts.” According to the abstract,

The Acts-Romans sequence, such as found in the Latin manuscript tradition and familiar to readers of the English Bible, is hermeneutically significant and fruitful. Early readers had good reason to place the books together, for the visit of Paul to Rome (Acts 28) is the one anticipated in the next chapter (Romans 1). The Letter to the Romans appears to pick up and develop key themes in the preceding book, and prefixing Romans with Acts promotes a certain reading strategy for the head-letter of the Pauline corpus. The adjoining of Acts and Romans suggests that the accusations made against Paul in the final chapters of Acts (and summed up in Acts 21:28) set the agenda for Romans, in which Paul shows that he does not speak against the people, the law, and the temple. Paul’s gospel proclaims that God will be faithful to the promises made to Abraham, so that Jewish privileges are preserved, the law is exonerated, and a community consisting of believing Jews and believing Gentiles is brought into being.

For the full article, see JETS.


Now available from Mohr Siebeck is Carol Newsom’s Rhetoric and Hermeneutics: Approaches to Text, Tradition and Social Construction in Biblical and Second Temple Literature. According to the publisher,

This collection of essays by Carol A. Newsom explores the indispensable role that rhetoric and hermeneutics play in the production and reception of biblical and Second Temple literature. Some of the essays are methodological and programmatic, while others provide extended case studies. Because rhetoric is, as Kenneth Burke put it, “a strategy for encompassing a situation,” the analysis of rhetoric illumines the ways in which texts engage particular historical moments, shape and reshape communities, and even construct new models of self and agency. The essays in this book not only explore how ancient texts hermeneutically engage existing traditions but also how they themselves have become the objects of hermeneutical transformation in contexts ranging from ancient sectarian Judaism to the politics of post-World War I and II Germany and America to modern film criticism and feminist re-reading.

HT: Jim Davila

Daily Gleanings (29 May 2019)

Freedom introduces Pause, a new Chrome extension that enforces a short pause before allowing you to open distracting websites. According to the extension’s description,

When loading a distracting website, Pause creates a gentle interruption by displaying a calming green screen.  After pausing for 5 seconds, you can then choose to continue to the site – or get back to work.  Leveraging behavioral science, the interruption created by Pause gently nudges you to make informed, intentional decisions about how you are spending your time.

Pause comes pre-seeded with a list of 50 top distracting websites, and you can add or remove sites from your Pause list.

Pause is apparently built to work in Chrome even if you don’t otherwise have an active Freedom subscription. For more information, see the Chrome web store.


Michael Kruger raises the question of the rootedness of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) in modern cultural realities, akin to what is often suggested by NPP proponents against readings of Paul in the tradition of the Reformers. The main body of the post helpfully leverages Barry Matlock’s “oft-overlooked academic article” entitled “Almost Cultural Studies? Reflections on the ‘New Perspective’ on Paul.” (See the original post for fuller bibliographic information on this essay.)

On both sides of this debate, I’m reminded of Gadamer’s observations that we, of course, always encounter the past under the influence of and as we are formed by “what is nearest to us.” But at the same time, this influence is not solely restrictive but enables our engagement with and productive knowledge of the past in particular ways.

On these themes, see “Hermeneutics and ‘the Near’” and “Tradition and Method.”

The Fusion of Rhetoric and Hermeneutics

At first glance, rhetoric and hermeneutics are quite different things.1 Rhetoric deals with argument and persuasion, hermeneutics with examination and understanding. But, if we look more closely, they comingle in a way that makes them inseparable.

To begin, both rhetorical and hermeneutical reflection take the form of considering existing practice (21).2 Already in the earliest surviving rhetorical theory from Plato and Aristotle, the theoretical discussion takes the form of reflection on rhetorical practice (21–22). Similarly, the Sophists and Socrates both manifest a concern for an “art of understanding,” even if this is not a full-fledged hermeneutical theory in its own right (22).

In addition, “the theoretical tools of the art of interpretation (hermeneutics) have been to a large extent borrowed from rhetoric” (24). Characteristically, rhetoric “defends the probable” and refuses to admit for acceptance only what can be fully proven empirically (24). And such too is the nature of interpretation.

Rhetoric is everywhere and even directs empiricism, as when science finds in “usefulness” a reason for taking up a particular line of research (24).3 And “no less universal is the function of hermeneutics” because “everything … is included in the realm of ‘understandings’ and understandability in which we move” (24–25).

In this way,

the rhetorical and hermeneutical aspects of human linguisticality completely interpenetrate each other. There would be no speaker and no art of speaking if understanding and consent were not in question, were not underlying elements; there would be no hermeneutical task if there were no understanding that has been disturbed and that those involved in a conversation must search for and find again together. (25)

Understanding comes about by dialog, even if it is only a dialog among oneself, a text, and the tradition that mediates between these two. Even here, as we seek to move past disruptions in this dialog and explain well what we observe, we expose a fundamentally rhetorical character of that dialog.


  1. Header image provided by Vanessa Ives. 

  2. Page numbers by themselves indicate citations from H.-G. Gadamer, “On the Scope and Function of Hermeneutical Reflection,” in Philosophical Hermeneutics, trans. and ed. David E. Linge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 18–43. 

  3. See also Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). 

Moltmann and Ricoeur in Dialog

At the Logos Academic Blog, Stephen Chan has a substantive essay on interaction between Jürgen Moltmann and Paul Ricoeur that focuses on the centrality of hope to Christian eschatology. In part, Chan suggests:

If symbols do give rise to thought … , then the symbolic language of biblical apocalyptic literature is irreducible and too important to be left behind in our theological construction.

For the full essay, see Chan’s original post at theLAB.